In 1865, Charles Dickens was aboard a train that derailed while crossing a bridge. Of the first-class compartments, only Dickens’ was spared the long fall into the river below. Dickens emerged unscathed, and proceeded to climb down the embankment and pull survivors from piles of twisted metal. Following the accident, Dickens’ health began to fail, and continued to deteriorate over the next five years. He wrote during this period, though less prolifically than he had in his younger years; he finished The Pickwick Papers and wrote only the first half of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In 1870, on the anniversary of the train accident, and before he could finish Drood, Dickens had a stroke and died.
Dan Simmons’ new novel, Drood (pp. 777, $26.99, Little Brown), is a creative exploration of Dickens’ life during this span of years. He builds on the mystery of the great writer’s half-finished novel by introducing Drood as a character in Dickens’ life rather than just in the pages of his book. He is a thin, ghostly specter of a man who rules the society of poor, displaced Londoners that inhabits the sewers, crypts and tunnels beneath the city. He meets Dickens on the day of the train accident, and for the next five years, the two share a dark and curious relationship based on murder, mesmerism and mind-control.
The narrator of Simmons’ tale is Wilkie Collins, a member of Dickens’ inner circle and a lesser novelist of the era. His opium addiction, regular hallucinations and crippling jealousy of Dickens make him a vindictive, unreliable source of information. However, the relationship between the two men proves to be a fascinating study in power dynamics and envy. Simmons allows readers to track the progression of Collins’ jealousy and observe the deterioration of his character under its effect.
While the novel is ambitious and entertaining, it would have benefited from more rigorous editing prior to publication. Ambrose Bierce once commented on the excessive length of a novel by saying, “The covers of this book are too far apart,” and he may as well have been talking about the 777 pages crammed between the covers of Drood. Too much of the novel is dedicated to tedious descriptions of domestic situations, ever-increasing doses of laudanum and Collins’ gout. Simmons also includes unnecessary tangents and dead-end story lines in an effort to keep readers guessing. Despite this editorial obstacle, Simmons’ writing is steeped in the macabre, offering his readers irresistibly fascinating descriptions of horrific circumstances and unspeakable acts. The dark recesses of Victorian London ultimately prove a strong enough cure for Simmons’ tendency to digress, and any excess storylines are easily overlooked in the reader’s race to solve the mystery of Drood.